African American voting-rights activist Annie Lee Cooper (1910–2010) made the front page of the New York Times in January of 1965 after hitting a Dallas County, Alabama sheriff during a confrontation at the county courthouse. The article contained a photograph of Cooper being subdued by sheriff's deputies, and when it ran in newspapers across the United States, it shocked many readers and prompted a comment from civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Annie Lee Cooper was in her mid-50s when she found herself on the front lines of the voting-rights struggle. Recently returned to her home state of Alabama, she was deterred from registering to vote several times due to her race. Again in 1965 she went to the local courthouse, where African American citizens had been mobilized and were lining up together to register. Cooper waited in line for hours, and when a sheriff ordered her to leave and go home, it was more than she could stand. At 224 pounds, she was not one to be pushed aside, and her frustration at being denied a basic right of all Americans prompted her to strike back.
Cooper was born June 2, 1910, in Selma, Alabama, into a family of ten brothers and sisters. As a child, she attended the Mt. Ararat Baptist Church, but her family left Selma when she was 14 years old. Over the next few decades, she would live in Kentucky, Ohio, and Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania, where she met and married a miner named Brad Cooper. The years passed, and in 1962 Cooper returned to Selma to care for her ailing mother. She joined the Shiloh Baptist Church and took a job at Dunn's Nursing Home.
Settling back in her home town, Cooper was surprised to hear residents discuss their struggles to register to vote at the Dallas County courthouse. Cooper was dumbfounded; she had never had difficulty voting while she was living in other states. When the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was signed into law in 1870, it extended voting rights to black males, and in 1920 the 19th Amendment extended the franchise to “all American women.” As Cooper learned, however, each state sets its own registration procedures, and in the South, these procedures were often designed to stop African Americans from registering.
In Alabama, registration procedures included poll taxes, literacy tests, and a Constitution comprehension test. The poll tax, a charge for casting one's ballot, was designed to disenfranchise lower, working-class voters as well as the poor, and the literacy test accomplished a similar purpose. On the Constitution test, Caucasians were often asked easy questions while blacks were asked to explain complicated parts of the nation's founding document. In the early 1960s, less than one percent of the black population in Dallas County, Alabama, was registered to vote.
Dallas County also had another impediment: the registration office was open only two days per month and ignored African American patrons. The staff often arrived late and took extended lunches, with the result that while lines might be long, only a handful of select citizens were tested each day. The Dallas County Voters League had tried for many years to register African American voters but pushback from state and local officials combined with threats from the Ku Klux Klan to squash these efforts. Many blacks were afraid to attempt registration after seeing others evicted from their homes or fired from jobs for attempting to become voters.
Undeterred by what she learned, Cooper attempted to register to vote, and she quickly realized that others’ fears were well founded. One day in 1963, as she stood outside the courthouse and waited in line, the owner of Dunn Nursing Home where she worked walked by and jotted down the names of all employees then standing in line. The man was staunch segregationist who would order television sets to be turned off at the nursing home whenever civil-rights-related news aired because he did not want his employees getting any ideas.
The day after Cooper was spotted attempting to register, she was fired. When other staffers at Dunn Nursing Home—mostly janitors and maids—walked off the job in protest, they were fired as well. While some of these men and women were blacklisted and struggled to find new jobs in Selma, Cooper secured a new job at Selma's Torch Motel and continued her registration efforts.
In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) joined forces with the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) to step up registration efforts in Selma. Their campaign received a huge blow, however, when in July of 1964, Circuit Judge James Hare issued an injunction forbidding either group from sponsoring a gathering of three or more individuals. In effect, this injunction barred all marches and mass meetings sponsored by civil-rights organizers. It thus became illegal to talk to more than two people at a time about voter registration or civil-rights issues. African American ministers in Selma were warned that it was now illegal to allow meetings in their churches where the conversation might stray to the topic of civil rights.
In a last-ditch effort to revive the movement, the DCVL appealed to Martin Luther King, Jr. In December 1964, Selma leaders sent a letter to King, urging him to come to their aid. One prominent member of the team had already written the reverend a letter describing Cooper's job loss as an example of the hurdles faced by black citizens in their town. He agreed to visit for a week, and on January 2, 1965, he held a mass meeting at Selma's Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Hundreds of people showed up in peaceful assembly and, despite the injunction, no one was arrested.
King set a Freedom March for Monday, January 18th, a day the voter registration office was open, and hundreds of African Americans gathered again at the Brown Chapel for inspiration and prayer. Once again, Selma Police Chief Wilson Baker did not intervene. Instead, he permitted small batches of people to march together to the voter registration office at the courthouse, breaking the large crowd into smaller groups. Dallas County, Alabama, Sheriff Jim Clark was not happy about Baker's actions, and as marchers arrived, he ushered them into an alley to line up. By the end of the day, the courthouse closed and none of those African Americans waiting had been called in to register. The next day, about 50 protesters returned to the courthouse, and when they refused to wait in the alley, many were arrested. Protesters returned the next day and were arrested for unlawful assembly when they refused to stand in the alley.
On Friday, January 22, 1965, the last day of the official protest, more than 100 African American teachers marched on the Dallas County courthouse. Teachers had been slow to join the cause because some of their peers had been fired by the white school board for attempting to register to vote. The teachers wore their best clothes and donned their finest Sunday hats. They also waved toothbrushes, indicating they were not afraid to be arrested and forced to spend a night in jail. Sheriff Clark and his deputies pushed the teachers out of the courthouse and down the stairs with clubs and cattle prods, but they made no arrests.
Since the beginning of the week, over 2,000 protesters had been arrested in Selma, while the number of African Americans who had successfully registered to vote stood at zero. An Alabama native who had served as a gunner during World War II, Clark was satisfied with his efforts to thwart the movement. He had been sheriff for ten years and was intimidating and known for turning violent, often using his nightstick and a cattle prod to control crowds. He poked fun at the protestors who sang “We Shall Overcome” by making remarks suggesting that civil-rights workers would never overcome him, and he wore a button on his uniform that said “NEVER,” to show his opposition to the voter-registration movement.
As the result of Clark's intimidation methods, only 300 of Dallas County's eligible 15,000 black voters were registered at the start of 1965. Among those still determined to vote was Cooper, who arrived at the courthouse on Monday, January 25, 1965, and took her place in line. The exact events of the day remained murky, but by the day's end Cooper had slugged Sheriff Clark and been jailed. The New York Times captured a photo of the scuffle and her picture appeared in newspapers across the United States. The photograph shows Cooper with her back on the ground while three officers, including Clark, subdue her. In the photo, her right arm is being restrained by one of the deputies and her left hand is grabbing at the nightstick being wielded by Clark, who straddles her.
Eyewitness accounts of the event were inconsistent. Some accounts suggested that Cooper was the instigator and that she lost her patience and attacked Clark, while others suggested that the sheriff started the fray. According to Cooper, Sheriff Clark poked her in the back of the neck with his club or a cattle prod, and this contact prompted her to throw her first punch. In Clark's 2007 obituary for the Washington Post, Adam Bernstein wrote that Clark fingered Cooper for starting the fight, saying: “She had stolen the club from one of my deputies, and all I was doing … was trying to get it out of her hand. But those damn newspaper fellows made it look like I was beating her.”
Despite contradictions about what started the fight, everyone present agreed that Cooper was clubbed after being splayed on the ground. Some accounts had her getting in a good three swings at the sheriff and even knocking him over. Clark drove Cooper to the jail himself, and she spent 11 hours in a cell, singing spirituals, until a jailer released her, fearing Clark might hurt her.
While Cooper was criticized for not adopting the nonviolent approach preached by King, she became a big deal, according to Frye Gaillard in Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement That Changed America. “The truth of it was, no matter how the leaders might try to spin it, in the Negro community in Selma, Alabama, Annie Cooper was suddenly a folk hero—not the martyred victim of a beating by the sheriff, but a woman who decided it was time to fight back. As one protester would put it years later, ‘This was the lady who beat the hell out of Clark.”’ Later, King referenced Cooper's jailing as an example of the unjust treatment endured by African Americans.
As January turned to February, the fight over voter rights continued in Selma. Finally, on March 7, 1965, some 600 protesters gathered in the city for a peaceful, organized march to the state capitol, located 54 miles away, in Montgomery. As a hero of the movement, Cooper joined the marchers, but as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, they were ordered to disperse. When they did not, Alabama state troopers—accompanied by Sheriff Clark—beat back the marchers with billy clubs and doused them with tear gas. Many were hospitalized, and the event became known as “Bloody Sunday.
” When the protestors planned a second march along the same route, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson came to their aid, calling in the Alabama National Guard and other military troops. On March 21, some 8,000 voting-rights advocates gathered in Selma to begin the march. Once again, Cooper was there, along with other civil-rights icons like Rosa Parks. By the time the crowd reached Montgomery four days later, they were 25,000 strong. At the Alabama capitol, Dr. King delivered his fiery “How Long, Not Long” speech. More than three decades later, Cooper remembered that speech. “His eyes were just a’twinklin”’ she told Gaillard, recalling that historic moment.
In August 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law and Cooper was finally able to register in Selma. In 2000, when President Bill Clinton visited the city to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Cooper complained that young African Americans did not seem to grasp the magnitude of her fight. “They're not taking advantage of the suffering that we went through,” she told Sean Reilly of the Mobile Press-Register.
Reaching her 100th birthday, Cooper died in Selma, on November 24, 2010. The city paid tribute to her by establishing Annie Cooper Avenue to commemorate her work as a voting-rights activist. In 2014, the motion picture Selma was released and included a depiction of Cooper's confrontation with Sheriff Clark, with Oprah Winfrey playing the part of Cooper. Initially, Winfrey had turned down the role, but she accepted it after learning that Cooper was a fan who had watched her show daily. As she told Josh Bergeron of the Selma Times-Journal, she also took the role to bring to light Cooper's tenacity in demanding her Constitutional right to cast her vote. “When she hit that sheriff she didn't just hit him for herself,” Winfrey said, “but for everybody who had been frustrated and didn't want to take any more.”
Gaillard, Frye, Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement That Changed America, University of Alabama Press, 2004.
May, Gary, Bending toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, Duke University Press, 2015.
Mobile Press-Register, March 6, 2000, Sean Reilly, “Still Bridges Yet to Cross,” p. A1.
Nashua Telegraph (Nashua, NH), January 26, 1965, John Herbers, “Negro Woman Is Arrested after Hitting Selma Sheriff,” pp. 1–3.
Selma Times-Journal, June 23, 2014, Josh Bergeron, “Oprah Winfrey Joins ‘Selma’ Cast at Town Hall.”
Washington Post, June 7, 2007, Adam Bernstein, “Ala. Sheriff James Clark: Embodies Violent Bigotry,” p. B7.
Selma Times-Journal online, http://www.selmatimesjournal.com/ (November 24, 2010), “Annie Lee Cooper, Civil Rights Legend.”❑